An excellent piece of work that explores the relationship between multiculturalism and terrorism as well as analyses the history of the idea of multiculturalism itself alongside its political roots and social consequences.
The little book is a critique of both multiculturalism and its critics, with the insistence that the challenge to multiculturalism and the challenge to its right-wing foes are inseparable. Part of the problem, according to its author, is attributed to the conflation of two distinct understandings of the term itself. The first is what he calls the lived experience of diversity which is certainly something to welcome and celebrate. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, which describes a set of policies the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize that diversity. The problem with the latter is that it puts people nicely into ethnic and cultural boxes by virtue of which individual needs and rights are defined, and using those boxes to shape public policy.
The dire consequence is that each particular community is perceived and treated as a monolithic bloc, with differences within the community itself largely ignored. As the author has rightfully pointed out, “multicultural policies have not responded to the needs of communities but, to a large degree, have helped create those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts arising out of class, gender, and intra-religious differences. They have empowered not minority communities but so-called community leaders who owe their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state.” (p.61)
When these so-called leaders or outspoken individuals within the community are empowered, they will be the ones to dominate the public discourse on matters that concern, and sometimes not concern, the community. In the case of the Danish cartoons, for instance, the question at the heart of the controversy is not simply ‘what is offensive?’ but also ‘who decides what is offensive?’. In other words, ‘who speaks for the community?’
With regard to offensiveness, the author is critical against the idea that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views. The problem with this line of argument, he writes, “is that what is often regarded as offence to a community is in reality a debate within that community.” (p.72). He calls for “those who insist that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free in order to protect cultural sensibilities and avoid conflicts, [to] look at the issue back-to-front. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech… the real value of [which] is not to those who possess power but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.” (pp.76-79)
Though the book addresses much of the problems that the Western world is facing even at this very moment, its analyses are very much relevant to us in this part of the world, as many of us are still grappling with coming to terms with our own country’s immigration policy, as well as the multiracial, multi-religious and multicultural policies that are shaped by a paternalistic and authoritarian state that dictates what can and cannot be said in the public sphere. As nicely put by Kenan Malik in his closing remarks:
“When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Or, to put it another way, diversity is important, not in and of itself but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test. But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is also the very thing that many people fear. That fear takes two forms. On the one hand is the dread of the Other, a sense that immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding the continuity of history and culture, undermining Western values. On the other is the multicultural belief that diversity has to be policed to minimize the clashes and conflicts and frictions that it brings in its wake, that everything has to be nicely parcelled up into pigeonholes of cultures and ethnicities and faiths, the messiness neat and ordered. It is time we rejected both. It is time we rebuffed both multiculturalism and its discontents. It is time we stopped fearing the messiness of the world and started seeing it as the raw material of social engagement, the bricks and mortar of social renewal.” (pp. 95-96)